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Leviticus 12-15: Whom Do We Send Outside the Camp? Israel Past and Future

Leviticus essentially creates a primitive quarantine system. The idea is that the "camp" of Israel -- the tribes still wandering in the wilderness after leaving Egypt -- is to be kept pure.
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The weekly Torah portions called Tazria and Metsora (Leviticus 12-15) are the classic bane of Jewish preachers' lives. They feature ancient rules about the treatment of skin diseases, defining what were obviously medical practices as matters of ritual purity and defilement.

The priest here takes the role of medical practitioner, looking at various sores and lesions, declaring some "impure" (presumably infectious), and others "pure" (not having reached the dangerous stage or being past it).

Leviticus essentially creates a primitive quarantine system. The idea is that the "camp" of Israel -- the tribes still wandering in the wilderness after leaving Egypt -- is to be kept pure. Those whose lesions are open and running, according to the priest's inspection standards, are to be kept outside the camp for a period of seven days, when they are to be inspected again. "All the days the affliction is upon him, he shall be held impure; he is impure. He shall dwell alone, outside the camp" (Leviticus 13:46).

It is likely, we should recall, that these rules of conduct for the life of the Israelite tribes wandering through the desert were probably written down about a thousand years later than the purported events they describe. At that point Israel was indeed wandering again -- living through the aftermath of its Babylonian exile -- and trying to define itself as a holy community, one with clear boundaries to its camp, keeping all "infection" and "filth" outside. The community was first learning how to maintain its integrity without its onetime natural borders. The image of its ancestors' holy camp, also wandering about outside the Holy Land, must have seemed inspiring and definitional.

It is not hard to see how concerns for health, morality and rectitude, as defined by priestly and later rabbinic elites, all came together, forming the protective boundaries of the sacred community. To do that, of course, we needed recourse to the existence of a realm called "outside the camp," the place where all who didn't fit could be sent, some until ready for further examination, but others forever.

Who are those we send "outside the camp?" In the various Hasidic and other ultra-Orthodox communities, the standards are quite clear and severe. Anyone who breaks with the norms of traditional Jewish law, or who openly expresses doubt in divine providence or the Torah's authority, is to be shunned. This still takes place in the old-fashioned way, including mourning as though for the dead. The Hasidim are not unlike the Amish; closed communities of the religious elect, for whose members' excommunication can be a devastating punishment.

For the rest of us, the ground is shifting. When I was younger, gays and inter-marrieds were the two kinds of Jews most likely to be kept "outside the camp." The former were seen as morally degenerate in an age that had not yet begun to deal with the origins of homosexuality and had not yet dreamed of normalizing it within the sacred bounds of marriage, as is thankfully being done today. The latter were betrayers, setting aside loyalty to thousands of years of tradition for the "mere" choice of a love-partner. This taboo, too, has been breached in most of our families, and the prospective son- or daughter-in-law is welcomed and embraced, partly in the hope that such embrace will encourage the raising of Jewish children, thus keeping the camp alive for another generation.

Who, then, is left outside our camp today? Among the very few we are still tempted to isolate are those who openly disagree with an assumed consensus about Israeli and Jewish politics. This fact speaks volumes about what has happened to our diaspora Jewish community's self-definition in the era of renewed Jewish statehood, and especially since 1967. There are some Jewish leaders who believe that our primary task as American Jews is to serve as a support group for Israel and its policies. As non-Israeli citizens, we have no voice in determining those policies but we must uphold and justify them. The role of holy community, wandering through time and space while upholding an eternal sacred and moral trust, is in danger of being replaced by that of lobby group for a nation state and its interests.

Who is being held "outside the camp"? Many Jews, representatives of the so-called "mainstream," try to place the questioners there: Michael Lerner, Avrum Burg, Jeremy Ben-Ami and, most recently, Peter Beinart -- those who challenge the consensus. These are all strongly committed Jews who love Israel, who care for its existence, and genuinely want to help save it from political as well as spiritual and ethical ruin. They are friends of a left that is entirely legitimate within Israel -- its intellectuals, artists, social activists, and a small number of rabbis -- who often serve as the country's moral conscience. But in our diaspora community, one that still seeks borders within which to constitute itself, such people need to be cast out.

It is thus an interesting coincidence that this double Torah portion comes upon us in the week when we are busy celebrating Israel Independence Day. Celebrate we do, and should. The creation of a national Jewish homeland, including the cultural renewal and creativity that go along with it, constitutes the greatest achievement of our people over the past century. Our ability to turn the hour of our greatest tragedy into a time of rebirth and strength is an epic event of human history, one in which we have all participated and in which we should all take pride.

But this is also a time for us to examine who we are and what we have become. Watching who it is that we cast as outsiders may tell us a lot about the nature of our "camp" and the ways in which we need to be sure it is still holy and not just self-righteous. Part of that holiness must include an openness to hearing the prophetic word, especially when it makes us uncomfortable. We need those voices inside our camp to help keep us honest.

As Beinart does well to remind us, no one knows that better than our next generation.

ON Scripture -- The Torah is a weekly Jewish scriptural commentary, produced in collaboration with Odyssey Networks and Hebrew College. Thought leaders from the United States and beyond offer their insights into the weekly Torah portion and contemporary social, political, and spiritual life.